Do you know this chair? You may recognize it as Van Gogh’s, a chair with his pipe and tobacco on the seat, his distinctive signature on the box behind it. But when I look at it, I see a love story- for him and for me!
Well that’s dramatic, Becky.
It is! But it’s true. This painting is the first one I ever tried to copy myself, back when we lived in France and I spent weeks on it, picking it up whenever everybody had gone to bed or when the kids were at school and Sam was down for a nap. (Or more truthfully, since Sam hated naps, whenever I was so desperate to accomplish something that I let him wander around wreaking havoc as I painted!)
I’d paint and give up, paint some more and give up again, throwing my hands up and storming away. But then I’d return to it because I’m stubborn like that and because I knew I was learning — about painting and Van Gogh but also about myself.
I wrote in The Holy Eclair about how painting Van Gogh’s chair was an key part of my spiritual journey and transformation in France, and it took more than a chapter, so I won’t try to say it all here. I’ll just say that Van Gogh taught me to really look at whatever I’m painting or loving or trying to understand, not just with my eyes but with my heart, and that making mistakes gives a painting more layers, and that this depth makes it more real. How about that? Risking and making mistakes actually makes the work better! I could go on and on with what might sound like mumbo jumbo, but suffice it to say that this first exercise in painting helped me learn to accept my own mistakes and faults and to love myself and others better. It taught me how to hand out grace.
And at the same time as I was painting that chair and then other works of Van Gogh, I was reading his story. I learned how he started out relentlessly working to copy the masters, tearing up his paintings in a rage when they weren’t as perfect as he wanted, until finally he learned to give himself the grace not to fit himself into other people’s molds but to be completely Vincent Van Gogh. A perfectionist learning to hand out grace? His world merged with mine. He’s a hero to me. A saint.
So when I heard that there was an amazing new Van Gogh exhibit going on at Les Baux de Provence where the paintings were projected onto enormous slabs of stone in a bauxite quarry and you could actually step into them as they moved around you- and that this was happening WHILE MY HUSBAND WAS IN FRANCE FOR THE MONTH OF MARCH (!!!!) I knew I had to take some vacation and see it for myself!
And so I did. And so I’m writing this blog post from my bed in a hotel room in Clermont Ferrand, still reeling from Saturday’s experience. Take a look here and see it for yourself. Their website footage is so much better than any of the video I tried to take.
We watched the program twice, taking in all the paintings we all know by heart- the sunflowers (which I grew up with as a copy hung in our kitchen …so many mornings of staring at those sunflowers while I ate my cereal!) the couple taking a nap by the bales of hay, the forlorn looking church, the irises, the postman, the starry night, the cafe on the terrace at night- and so many more. Todd and I let them all pour over us. And then something happened as we started to leave.
A little girl was standing on a slab of stone as we headed toward the exit. Her parents were taking pictures but she didn’t seem to notice. She was too busy examining the field she found herself in. I watched her tilt her head, as if to see if she could feel the wind in her ears.
And then the painting changed.
The crows began to fly overhead, and she stretched out her arms to catch them, to touch their tail feathers.
It was a beautiful thing, this little girl immersed in the world of the painting. Down below her in the real world were her mommy and daddy, but here were these birds and a hillside under her feet. She could imagine herself into both worlds, so why not reach for the birds?
The next morning, I had a similar experience.
I had wanted to go see the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, but it didn’t open until 10, so we walked the streets of Arles, taking in the beautiful sunshine. A coffee would help the time pass (who needs an excuse for a coffee?) so we stepped into a square where there were several cafes. And then I saw one that looked strangely familiar.
And no, I didn’t see the GREAT BIG SIGN IN FRONT OF THE TABLES that showed anyone walking by that this is the cafe of Terrasse du café le soir by Van Gogh. No, what I saw was the orangey- gold of the cafe walls and the art deco style entryway of the hotel across the street and the paneling of the shop next door which somehow I KNEW inside my brain. And then it hit me. I had spent days trying to get those details right when I copied Van Gogh’s painting of that very site!
I had stepped into this painting and not even known it.
The painting’s world and my world merged. I was inside the painting, almost 20 years after copying it. I had loved it as I had painted it, noticing all the lines and colors, the arcs of the cobblestones, the curlicues of the light poles, the lines of the shutters, the glowing light under the awning. As I looked hard at it, with both my eyes and my heart, it had become a part of me. Our worlds had merged and here they were years later, merged again.
One more story… (My posts aren’t usually this long, but VAN GOGH! And ARLES! And FRANCE!)
As I tried to calm down later last night, my husband snoring beside me, I thought back on something that happened the first few hours of our trip south Saturday and how it felt familiar to the whole worlds merging idea. We were stopping for lunch in a little town outside of Valence- nothing fancy- we just wanted salads in a little bistro.
It looked deserted but there was still a big chalkboard outside, listing their specials for the day, so we walked in. The bar was dark and small so we asked to be seated on the terrace out back. It was lovely to sit under a canopy of woody grapevines, near a handmade fountain with a quirky plastic hedgehog looking at us. Our young waiter was curious about our American accented French and said they normally don’t get foreigners but how exciting because he adores the states, especially Californie and Nevada. He wants to go to Las Vegas one day and also Los Angeles.
When he took our order, he rattled off all the salads they can make and then said in French, “but it’s easier to choose if you see it all written down.” Before we could stop him he ran back to the street, dragged in the enormous chalkboard, brought it down a flight of steps to the terrace and then to our table. After we ordered, Todd mentioned that he enjoys growing grapes, at which our waiter told us all about the 120-year-old vine we were sitting under and how it’s weeping right now as it gets ready to produce leaves and growth. To make sure we understood, he traced an imaginary tear down his cheek. How I love French people.
Lunch was delicious.
After a coffee for the road, (who needs an excuse for a coffee?) we went to the bar to pay. An old man on a stool listened as we made small talk with the owner, praising the delicious meal and the vines and the sunshine.
“Are you vacationing north or south?” asked the owner, and Todd explained where we were headed, adding that he’s been in Clermont Ferrand working for Michelin all month and that we used to live there years ago. The old man stood up and pulled a Michelin key chain out of his pocket to show us, and then the owner started talking all about how much he loves his Michelin tires and ASM rugby team (Association Sportive Montferrandaise was started by Michelin years ago) and how he cheered when they won the French Championship in 2010, in their 100th year as a club.
We chatted some more and then shook hands and wished each other well.
Merging worlds, I thought. All of us, the waiter, the owner, the old man, Todd and me, we all were eager to imagine ourselves into each other’s worlds, to believe that we weren’t so different, to seek out proof – the waiter’s love for Las Vegas and Californie, Todd’s vines, the old man’s key chain, the bistro owner’s love for ASM Rugby.
We belong to each other, whether we acknowledge it or not. Like the little girl reaching for the birds, like a woman from South Carolina unwittingly walking into a painting she copied twenty years ago by a man who changed her life, why not embrace the merging, the oneness? We are all children of the same God in the same world. Any boundaries there are just ones we’ve drawn ourselves.
If we can imagine our worlds merging, why not reach for the birds?
Blessings to you all!